After The Techno-Fix
when grappling with the idea of economic disintegration, Americans attempt
to cast it in terms of technological or economic progress: eco-villages,
sustainable development, energy efficiency and so on. Under the circumstances,
such compulsive techno-optimism seems maladaptive."
— Dmitry Orlov, "Our Village"
path beyond petroleum begins by considering five principles: that alternative
sources of energy are insufficient; that hydrocarbons, metals, and electricity
are inseparable; that advanced technology is part of the problem, not
part of the solution; that post-oil agriculture means a smaller population;
and that the basis of the problem is psychological, not technological.
in modern industrial society is dependent on oil and other hydrocarbons.
From these we get gasoline, heating fuel, fertilizer, pesticides, lubricants,
plastic, paint, synthetic fabrics, asphalt, pharmaceuticals, and many
other things. Speaking in more general terms, we can say that we are
dependent on hydrocarbons for manufacture, for transportation, for agriculture,
for mining, and for electricity. The peak of world oil production is
(or was) about 30 billion barrels a year, supporting a human population
of nearly 7 billion. In the entire world, there are perhaps a trillion
barrels of oil left to extract — which may sound like a lot, but
isn’t. By 2030, annual oil production will be less than half of
what it was at its peak.
Sources of Energy Are Insufficient
sources of energy will never be of much use, mainly because of the problem
of "net energy": the amount of energy output from alternative
sources is not sufficiently greater than the amount of energy input
(which is hydrocarbons). Alternative sources are not sufficient to supply
the annual needs of "industrial society" as the term is generally
The use of
unconventional oil (tar sands, shale deposits, heavy oil) poses several
problems. The first is that of insufficient net energy. The second is
that of extreme pollution. The third is that is even if we optimistically
assume that about 700 billion barrels of unconventional oil could be
produced, that amount would equal only about 15 years of global oil
cannot be made practical, because such devices require hydrogen derived
from hydrocarbons. Biofuels (e.g., from corn) require enormous amounts
of land and still result in insufficient quantities of net energy. Hydroelectric
dams are reaching their practical limits. Nuclear power will soon be
suffering from a lack of fuel and is already creating serious environmental
and geothermal power are only effective in certain areas and for certain
purposes. Such types of power, in any case, are of significant value
only when converted into electrical energy, requiring the use of disposable
batteries and some very rare metals. In terms of ecology (i.e. the relationship
between population and resources), these types of power are therefore
no better than the hydrocarbon-based power they are intended to replace.
uses 15 terawatts of power every year. It’s hard to imagine how
much energy that is; it’s more than "a lot." By 2030
the world’s oil supply will be so depleted that the Industrial
Age will be over, for all practical purposes. Yet proponents of "alternative
energy" hope to transform the entire planet in a time frame that
would be implausible even in a work of science fiction.
for alternative sources of energy is not merely illusory; it is actually
harmful. By daydreaming of a noiseless and odorless utopia of windmills
and solar panels, we are reducing the effectiveness of whatever serious
information is now being published. When news articles claim that there
are simple painless solutions to the oil crisis, the reader’s
response is not awareness but drowsiness. We are rapidly heading toward
what has been described as the greatest disaster in history, but we
are indulging in escapist fantasies.
Metals, and Electricity Are Inseparable
of the sort that can be processed with primitive equipment is becoming
scarce, and only the less-tractable forms will be available when the
oil-powered machinery is no longer available — a chicken-and-egg
problem. Copper, aluminum, and other metals are also rapidly vanishing.
Metals were useful to mankind only because they could once be found
in concentrated pockets in the earth’s crust; now they are irretrievably
scattered among the world’s garbage dumps.
is not a source of energy; it is only a carrier of energy. That energy
comes mainly from coal, natural gas, nuclear power plants, or hydroelectric
dams. Coal is terribly inefficient; only a third of its energy is transferred
as it is converted to electricity. At the same time, the electrical
grids are perpetually operating at maximum load, chronically in need
of better maintenance and expensive upgrading. The first clearly marked
sign of "the end" may be the failure of electricity.
metals, and electricity are all intricately connected. Each is inaccessible
— on the modern scale — only when the other two are present.
Any two will vanish without the third. If we imagine a world without
hydrocarbons, we must imagine a world without metals or electricity.
There is no way of breaking that "triangle."
Technology Is Part of the Problem, Not Part of the Solution
choices may be available in the future, they will not be found in advanced
technology, in "high-tech" solutions. There are three reasons
why that is so. In the first place, any "alternative-energy"
devices would have to be created from plastics and metals. Secondly,
they would have to be controlled by electricity. Finally, they would
have to be created by large and sophisticated machines and transported
over long distances. But the whole point in speculating about "alternative
energy" in the first place is to find an answer to that particular
crisis — the fact that none of those three factors will exist
in future years.
all that we think of as "modern industrial society" has its
"sociological" components: intricate division of labor, large-scale
government, and high-level education. Without hydrocarbons, metals,
and electricity, we will find ourselves in a pre-industrial world in
which there is no material infrastructure allowing those "sociological"
components to exist.
technology is part of the problem to be solved, not the solution itself.
There may be some form of technology that can save us from the depletion
of hydrocarbons, but it is certainly not "high." To speak
of "high-tech methods" as if they were largely synonymous
with "methods employing alternative sources of energy" is
ultimately self-contradictory and self-defeating.
enter a "post-carbon" world. Life on Earth has been "carbon"
for at least half a billion years. It will not change in the next decade
Agriculture Means a Smaller Population
is dependent on hydrocarbons for fertilizers (the Haber-Bosch process
combines natural gas with atmospheric nitrogen to produce nitrogen fertilizer),
pesticides, and the operation of machines for harvesting, processing,
and transporting. The Green Revolution was the invention of a way to
turn petroleum and natural gas into food. Without hydrocarbons, modern
methods of food production will disappear. Food production will be greatly
reduced, and there will be no practical means of transporting food over
point is to think in terms of a smaller radius of activity. The globalized
economy has to be replaced by the localized economy. In the post-oil
world, most food will be produced at a local level. The catch, however,
is that most of the world’s surface is permanently unsuitable
for growing food: the climate is too severe, or the land is too barren.
a small human population might survive on agriculture, at least if it
reverted to some primitive methods. Some Asian cultures brought wild
plant material from the mountains and used it as fertilizer, thereby
making use of the N-P-K (etc.) of the wilderness. Many other cultures
used wood ashes. The nutrient "source" of the wilderness fed
the nutrient "sink" of the farmland. (This is one of the basic
principles behind all "organic gardening," although few practitioners
would admit it or even know it.)
technology, it will not be possible to feed a world population that
has anywhere near the present size. Even the "alternative"
catch-phrases harbor a number of misconceptions. "Intensive gardening,"
for example, is possible only with a garden hose and an unlimited supply
of water. "Organic gardening" relies on sources of potassium,
phosphorus, and other elements that will not be available without modern
techniques of mining and transport. The maximum population that can
be supported, therefore, is about four people per hectare of arable
5: The Basis
of the Problem Is Psychological, Not Technological
As the oil
crisis worsens there will be various forms of aberrant behavior: denial,
anger, mental paralysis. There will be an increase in crime, there will
be strange religious cults or extremist political movements. The reason
for such behavior is that fundamentally the peak-oil problem is not
about technology, and it is not about economics, and it is not about
politics. It is partly about humanity’s attempt to defy geology.
But it is mainly about psychology: most people cannot grasp what William
Catton refers to as "overshoot."
come to terms with the fact that as a species we have gone beyond the
ability of the planet to accommodate us. We have bred ourselves beyond
the limits. We have consumed, polluted, and expanded beyond our means,
and after several thousand years of superficial technological solutions
we are now running short of answers. Biologists explain such expansion
in terms of "carrying capacity": lemmings and snowshoe hares
— and a great many other species — have the same problem;
overpopulation and over-consumption lead to die-off. But humans cannot
come to terms with the concept. It goes against the grain of all our
religious and philosophical beliefs.
Statistical Review of World Energy. Annual.
Colin J. The Coming Oil Crisis. Brentwood, Essex: Multi-Science, 1997.
R., Jr. Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. Champaign,
Illinois: U of Illinois P, 1980.
Kenneth S. Hubbert’s Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage. Princeton:
Princeton UP, 2001.
et al. Beyond Oil: The Threat to Food and Fuel in the Coming Decades.
Cambridge, Massachusetts: Ballinger, 1986.
Donella H. et al. The Limits to Growth: a Report for the Club of Rome’s
Project on the Predicament of Mankind. 2nd ed. New York: Universe, 1982.
Goodchild is the author of Survival Skills of the North American
Indians, published by Chicago Review Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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